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Films

Hannah Arendt

Yasemin Sari on a new film about a courageous thinker and her views on responsibility and the nature of evil.

This movie opens with two scenes. In the first, we see a man walking on a dark road suddenly being kidnapped. This is Adolf Eichmann, ex-SS officer, Nazi bureaucrat and one of the major organisers of the Holocaust, being captured in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents in 1961. The next scene shows a woman (played by Barbara Sukowa) staring at the ceiling and smoking a cigarette. This is Arendt, thinking.

Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic Hannah Arendt hit the big screen on the fiftieth anniversary of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt first published it in The New Yorker as a series of articles following Eichmann’s trial at the District Court of Jerusalem in 1961. This work occupies a special place in Arendt’s corpus, as it appeared after her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958), but before her masterful investigation into how we think, The Life of the Mind (published posthumously in 1978). In the Origins, Arendt analyzes the conditions that led to the rise of totalitarianism as a structure of government, while in The Human Condition, she offers her audience the novel thesis that political action is the freedom-manifesting self-disclosing action of the individual in concert with others, grounded in conditions of plurality and equality. Both of these works stand at the core of her political theory. Her Eichmann book is a fact-based report that presents a reflective political judgment about a man and his deeds, while The Life of the Mind is the culmination of her thinking, where she presents the conditions of the activities of the mind; that is, of thinking, willing, and judging. The chapter on judging was not completed; however, we get an insight into how she differentiates thinking and judging and the relationship between them that is significant for understanding Hannah Arendt the public thinker. And without any reservation, I can say that von Trotta’s film aims at capturing the relationship between thinking and judging for Hannah Arendt.

Arendt
Arendt thinking and writing during the Eichmann trial (a still from the movie)
Hannah Arendt still © Zeitgeist Films 2013

Arendt the Public Thinker

‘Where are we when we think?’ is one of the central questions Arendt poses in The Life of the Mind. Although this question focuses on an invisible activity, one of the central tenets of Arendt’s thinking about thinking concerns spatiality and how this relates to the significance of appearance in human life. As she says:

“Mental activities are invisible themselves, and… become manifest only through speech. Just as appearing beings living in a world of appearances have an urge to show themselves, so thinking beings, which still belong to the world of appearances even after they have mentally withdrawn from it, have an urge to speak and thus to make manifest what otherwise would not be a part of the appearing world at all.” (The Life of the Mind, p.98)

So for Arendt, thought is manifest in conversation. Nevertheless, conversation can best be understood as happening at two levels: one personal, and the other interpersonal. In thinking, we are in a dialogue with ourselves. Thoughtlessness, then, for Hannah Arendt, is the absence of inner dialogue. This thoughtlessness, in turn, leads to the absence of judgment, which is a ‘moral collapse’.

Thought is a conversation: either with one’s self, or with others and Von Trotta does a brilliant job in depicting Arendt’s conversation with others. We see her talking to almost every significant character in her life: to Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer), someone with whom she shares private thoughts; with her husband Heinrich Bluecher (Axel Milberg), whose love and companionship is revealed not only by words but also by expressive gestures and kisses; and with her old friend Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), whom she is open to listen to, laugh and argue with, and be heard by.

This movie is about a particular period in Arendt’s life, and its mastery is in showing us that where she stands cannot be understood without understanding where she has come from and, more importantly, what and whom she has left behind. The depiction of the relationship between her present and past features three flashback scenes where we see her conversing with her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), who later joined the Nazis. For instance in Heidegger’s office in Marburg, we see him tell his student, the young Arendt, that “thinking is a lonely business.” Throughout the film, by contrast, Arendt shows that thought is meaningful only when it is heard in public.

The culmination of this quest for meaning comes toward the end of the film, where we see Arendt delivering a lecture she was invited to give by her students after the intense controversy provoked by her trial report in the New Yorker. We hear her talk about the inability to think and its outcomes while at the same time showing her own courage not only to think, but also to speak to the world around her:

“In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true, I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”

Politics & Judgment

The only recorded appearance we have of Arendt is her famous television interview with Günter Gaus in 1964, in which she claims that she is not a philosopher. This statement has been interpreted in several ways. I contend, however, that there is a simple way to understand it.

Firstly, Arendt meant she was a critic of traditional political philosophy. Her criticism lies in her questioning the ‘ideal’ elements found in certain political doctrines starting from Plato and culminating in Marx and Hegel. Unlike them, Arendt didn’t offer us a vision of a future state of human society stemming from some ideal-directed (‘teleological’) understanding of history or human behaviour. Secondly, Arendt did not propose an ideal theory of politics because she didn’t believe that ‘politics’ or ‘the political’ even exists as an ideal, abstract entity. Instead, politics, or the political, exists only insofar as it exists between human beings (see Promise of Politics, p.95).

Eichmann
Eichmann in Ayalon Prison, Ramla, Israel, circa 1961

This second statement needs to be clarified. For although Arendt contends that ‘the political’ is not an inherent quality of any action or thing, she herself thinks politically insofar as she thinks with others or about the ‘in-between’ of our existence together. (This ‘in-between’ concerns the conditions of living together, which binds and separates us at the same time, yet where we are aware that we share the world with each other.) This ‘political’ thinking can only appear meaningfully in public, since it is thinking with others. Here one reflectively judges what is happening in the world around her. Such reflective judgment enables us to understand the world and what kind of world we want to be part of. So plurality is a condition for thinking in this sense, and this thinking is a precondition for judging. Adolf Eichmann, however, did not think; hence, he did not judge. In turn, through his actions, he demonstrated what Arendt infamously labelled “the banality of evil.” Here she put forth neither a general rule nor a philosophical thesis concerning the nature of evil, but rather, an explanation of a particular phenomenon in order to show how this instance of evil was possible. Von Trotta forcefully presents Arendt’s judgment as she is conversing with her old Zionist friend Blumenfeld, and says: “Eichmann is no Mephistopheles.”

The radicality of Eichmann’s evil consisted in its banality. It was not condemnable because of its demonic (non-human) qualities, for his evil was not demonic. It was, however, still un-human in the sense that in the absence of his thought this human being had no presence to himself. Arendt’s term ‘banality of evil’ in no way excuses Eichmann’s actions: they were evil, and they led to a vast genocide, and he was responsible for what he had done. He did not stand in indifference, nor did he resist. He acted, in Arendt’s words “without motives” – which points to the absence of an inner dialogue with himself. Von Trotta’s use of original new footage from the trial is very fit for emphasizing again the particularity of Arendt’s judgment, and how she saw the man, whom she judged to be a ‘nobody’.

Judging Arendt

There is an argument throughout the film about what kind of a person Hannah Arendt was: about how she lived, thought, wrote, spoke, and smoked. Arendt existed with others; she cherished her relationship with her loved ones, and found this to be at the root of her existence. We see the importance of this in a scene where her husband tries to leave the house without interrupting her while she’s writing. He says that philosophers should not be interrupted while they are thinking, and she replies, “But they cannot think without kisses.”

Arendt responded to the world around her in her quest for truth – not for eternal truth(s), but for the meaning found in one’s judgment of what appears to them. Many critics have taken issue with her shift from her analysis of the Nazi terror as ‘radical evil’ in The Origins of Totalitarianism to her later idea, the ‘banality of evil’, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. As we see in the film, this judgment on Eichmann was welcomed neither by Arendt’s close circle of friends, nor by the Jewish community, nor by The New Yorker readership at large. In fact, she was accused by Gershom Scholem of not loving the Jewish people (though in the film his words are uttered by Kurt Blumenfeld, at what we understand to be his deathbed). To this Arendt replies, “I only love my friends. This is the only love I am capable of.”

As she makes clear in The Life of the Mind, thinking is a faculty of the mind, and the (intellectual) mind is different from the soul that moves us, as the seat of the passions. For Arendt, a lack of human sentiment was not enough to explain evil. For her, our shared world can only be meaningful and good when we can be seen and heard by others. The principle of this involves not sentiment, but thought, whose reality can only tangibly appear in conversation, and can be maintained only when we keep this conversation going through our public use of reason. What Arendt does by way of Eichmann’s trial is to argue that evil lies not in the passions of a monster, but rather, in Eichmann’s inability to think with and for himself.

This film urges us to think, and it shows us that the stakes are high. One needs to have the courage to think, and to speak, and to make one’s thoughts public. Von Trotta shows us that Arendt would have been unlikely to give up this courage. To Heinrich Bluecher’s question as to whether she would have written what she had written had she known the consequences, she replies, “Yes,” and so affirms her responsibility to the world.

© Yasemin Sari 2014

Yasemin Sari is working on Arendt for her PhD at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.

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